TORONTO -- Christopher Walken had to learn to play the cello to prepare for his new film A Late Quartet, but he was already well-acquainted with the lives of classical musicians from his upbringing in New York City.
"I grew up on the Upper West Side, which really is a kind of mecca for serious music," Walken said at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.
"Whole families who perform and teach -- mother, father, kids. They have a great life and when they're not performing and touring, they teach. You know, never a dull moment."
A Late Quartet stars Walken, Catherine Keener, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mark Ivanir as a classical musical ensemble that is thrown into disarray when their leader (Walken) learns he has a debilitating disease.
The problems of the group are further compounded by marital difficulties between the characters played by Keener and Hoffman.
Helmed by first-time director Yaron Zilberman, the story offers a fascinating glimpse into the rigours of the classical music world.
So did the newbie filmmaker feel any nerves working with a cast that has racked up more than a half-dozen Oscar nominations between them?
"Of course, I had jitters. These are incredible actors and so experienced. With the experience comes challenge in a good way, in a constructive way," Zilberman, who previously made the documentary Watermarks, said in a recent interview.
"At the same time, it was a world that I knew so well."
All of the leads underwent serious training to master their musical instruments. The onscreen effect is remarkable: Zilberman says there is only one scene in the film in which a double was used.
Keener -- whose character plays the viola -- says she loves classical music (her ex-husband Dermot Mulroney is a cellist and so is their son), and that Walken's background had an impact on his castmates.
"He definitely set a tone.... You know, 'this is what the neighbourhood's like.'"
Zilberman agrees that Walken emerged as a leader on set.
"Just by the gravitas of his personality, his presence is such that everyone has such respect for him, that it just happens naturally," said the director.
"His contribution also to film history... is so vast and varied that just by that everyone is so respectful. It's like he had an aura about him."
Ivanir -- who plays the quartet's hot-headed lead violinist -- is the least-known of the quartet, but is already receiving raves for his performance.
"(He's) sort of an outsider, you know," says Zilberman when asked what the actor, whose screen credits include 360 and Schindler's List, brought to the film.
"He lives in L.A. and he works in Hollywood, but he's originally from Ukraine and then he moved to Israel. So (he brings) this aspect of someone who's sort of an outsider to the family. He brought that dimension, which is very important for music, but also for the movie... so it added that dimension and that complexity."
Walken's nuanced turn as an avuncular cellist, meanwhile, is garnering Oscar whispers. It's a stark contrast from the villain roles the Deerhunter actor is most well known for.
Says Zilberman: "I knew that he would do an incredible job. I didn't know exactly what it was going to become. So once we met and read the script together I realized that it would be something unique and very emotional."
-- The Canadian Press